Desh Deshpande on Starting Merrimack Valley Innovation Center—and Making a Global Impact from Massachusetts to India

For some people, innovation is not enough. Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande is one of those people. Let’s just say the Boston-area tech entrepreneur and billionaire philanthropist has earned the right to make such a claim.

“For innovation to have impact, it needs relevance,” he says. “Innovation plus relevance equals impact.”

Deshpande is talking about global impact, but his latest project is in his own backyard. Last month, his foundation committed $5 million over the next five years to support a new innovation center housed at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The Merrimack Valley Sandbox, as it’s called, will work together with local colleges and nonprofits to boost entrepreneurship among students and professionals, and to develop local leadership through mentoring and seed funding programs.

The new initiative has similarities to the Deshpande Center at MIT and a social entrepreneurship center Deshpande set up in northern Karnataka, India—with some big differences. But to understand what Deshpande is really trying to accomplish with the Merrimack project, you need to know more about his story.

Gururaj Deshpande grew up in India and studied electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras (Chennai). He went on to do his PhD in data communications at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Starting in the late 1980s, he founded a series of successful technology companies—Coral Networks, Cascade Communications (which sold to Ascend Communications for $3.7 billion in 1997), Sycamore Networks (NASDAQ: SCMR), and Tejas Networks. He currently serves as chairman of Sycamore, Tejas, and A123Systems, among other top-level duties.

The success of Cascade and Sycamore made Deshpande a wealthy man, and he and his wife Jaishree set up the Deshpande Foundation in 1995. Its unifying theme has been to foster innovation ecosystems and social entrepreneurship. Its first major initiative was setting up the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation at MIT in 2002. That organization has been active in providing grants to MIT labs, connecting faculty with the business community, and more generally tying ivory- tower research to market realities.

“In society, thinkers all come together, and they come up with new ideas,” Deshpande says. “But as they keep coming up with new ideas, they have to play the game of impressing each other”—whether that means other professors or government funding agencies. “In the process they lose the ability to have impact,” he says, because of a lack of relevance to real-world problems (and products). “The center at MIT is about bringing that relevance.”

After a few years, Deshpande looked at setting up something similar in his native land. “But somehow doing nanotechnology in India didn’t sound that exciting,” he says. Instead, he thought, … Next Page »

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